Chronicles: Re-Viewing Israel’s History

With the exile behind them, many Jews had returned to their homeland to rebuild their nation and its capital, Jerusalem. When later generations once again grew slack, an anonymous chronicler reminded them of their history and their identity.

With this article we begin the third and final section of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Writings. In this series we have generally followed the order of the books as found in the current Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh. But we have chosen to discuss the two books of Chronicles first in this section, rather than last, because they trace the origins of Israel and Judah from the beginning to the reestablishment of the Jewish polity following the Babylonian captivity. They also share the genre of history with the preceding books of the Former Prophets: Samuel and Kings.

Organizing the Books

The order of the books of the Hebrew Scriptures, as Christ would have known them, was according to the tripartite division: the Law, the Prophets, the Writings.

The Law (Torah)

The Law includes the five books of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy).

The Prophets (Nevi’im)

The Prophets comprises the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel [counted as one book], 1 and 2 Kings [counted as one book]) and the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Twelve Minor Prophets [counted as one book]).

The Writings (Kethuvim)

The Writings consists of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah (counted as one book), 1 and 2 Chronicles (counted as one book)—24 books in total.

There is precedent for this approach. Two important versions of the Hebrew Bible—the oldest complete manuscript, the Codex Leningrad (1008 CE), and the slightly older but incomplete Aleppo Codex (930 CE)—place both parts of Chronicles as a single book at the beginning of the Writings. Similarly, the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint (300–200 BCE)—the first to separate Chronicles into two books and the model in this for many subsequent versions, including those in Hebrew—positions Chronicles among the historical books, following Kings.

But why a second history of Israel? Surely it’s redundant to simply repeat what is already known.

The word Chronicles is taken from the Greek chronikon, the term the translator Jerome used in describing the book’s contents in the late fourth to fifth century. His title for the book was another Greek word, paralipomenon, based on its name in the Septuagint. It means “things left out,” “left over” or “omitted.” The idea was that Chronicles supplied information that was missing from earlier versions of biblical history. We’ll find that it’s far more than that, and that the chronicler himself left out things.

In Hebrew the title is dibrē hayyāmīm, “the events (or the words) of the days”; that’s to say, “annals” or “a history.” This Hebrew phrase occurs in several other references: “the chronicles of the kings of Israel” (1 Kings 14:19); “the chronicles of the kings of Judah” (verse 29); “the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia” (Esther 10:2); and “the chronicles of King David” (1 Chronicles 27:24).

Scholars debate the authorship and date of Chronicles. The author is unknown from the text itself, though rabbinic and medieval tradition attributed not only Chronicles but also the books of Ezra and Nehemiah to the postexilic priest Ezra. This idea has been rejected by many scholars, who no longer accept a common authorship. Speculations about the date range from ca. 515 to ca. 150 BCE. But as we’ll see, there are several reasons to believe that the anonymous chronicler was writing toward the end of the Persian period, or even as the Greek period began.

Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah constitute two different works by two different authors. . . . When considered in their totality they represent two varieties of biblical historical writing during the Persian-Hellenistic period.”

Sara Japhet, I & II Chronicles

The book is structured as follows:

  1. 1 Chronicles 1 through 9: introduction;
  2. 1 Chronicles 10 through 2 Chronicles 9: the history of Israel under David and Solomon;
  3. 2 Chronicles 10 through 36: the history of the kingdom of Judah from the departure of the northern Israelite tribes to Assyria.

The author names or refers to various biblical sources for his personalized version of Israel’s history—among them the five books of Moses, Joshua, the books of Samuel and Kings, Ezra-Nehemiah, and some psalms.

The chronicler’s reconstruction seems to be a deliberate attempt to bring a new perspective for his postexilic times. For example, he pays special attention to David, Solomon and several succeeding righteous kings of Judah, including Asa, Hezekiah and Josiah; to the centrality of Jerusalem, the temple and its rituals; and to the positive response of the people to God’s leadership. These emphases can be understood as his way of encouraging the returnees in the renewal of the entire nation following their liberation from Babylon.

Unlike the book of Kings, which he otherwise follows carefully, the chronicler does not give a synchronized history of the kings of the northern tribes but only of Judah’s monarchs. This is not to say that he excludes northerners from his account entirely. Beyond the history of their separation from the southern kingdom, he highlights them several times as part of Israel of old, when the tribes were undivided.

Establishing the Historical Framework

The nine-chapter introduction begins with Creation and the first human being. Material for the first section (1 Chronicles 1–2:2) is taken from the main genealogical blocks available in Genesis (chapters 5, 10–11, 25, 35–36). The thrust of the introduction is to narrow the focus from humanity in general to the sons of Jacob, renamed Israel, as the line that God had elected. This is achieved by listing only some descendants of each line. For example, excluded from Adam’s are the sons of Cain, Nahor (Abraham’s brother) and Lot.

In addition, material from Genesis is sometimes presented in reverse order so the line of Jacob is preeminent. In Genesis 35–36, for example, Jacob precedes Esau; but the opposite is the case in 1 Chronicles, where Esau’s line is briefly mentioned (1:34–37) ahead of a lengthy outline of his brother’s, thus emphasizing Jacob.

As the record approaches more closely ‘the sons of Israel’ (2.1), it becomes progressively more detailed, and the main genealogical line receives full treatment in chapters 2–9.”

Sara Japhet, I & II Chronicles

Throughout Chronicles Jacob is referred to as Israel, with two exceptions (both in 1 Chronicles 16) where the writer is quoting Psalm 105. This again emphasizes that it is the Israelite descendants of Jacob through whom God is working.

Over the next several chapters, the focus narrows to Judah and the family of Israel’s king David. Even though Judah was not the firstborn, his descendants are presented first in the genealogical tables of Jacob’s sons. This emphasis, however, does not rule out the importance of the descendants of the other sons in the chronicler’s mind. Judah is named as the line from which the rulership would come, but the birthright was assigned to the northern tribes of Joseph (see 1 Chronicles 5:2).

The structure of this section of the introduction (2:3–9:2) follows a geographic pathway, beginning with the tribes of Judah and Simeon in the center of the land. David’s genealogy is introduced (2:13–15), followed in chapter 3 by a list of his descendants. Chapter 4 returns to the family of Judah and then reviews Simeon’s line.

Moving eastward across the Jordan, chapter 5 recounts—from south to north—the tribes of Reuben, Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh. Chapter 6 details Levi’s descendants, more or less at the center of the tribal lists—a fitting position, considering their role in serving all the tribes. The next chapter groups the tribes of Issachar, Naphtali and Benjamin. Turning southward, in chapter 8 we come to Manasseh, Ephraim and Benjamin as a central group, with Asher attached to them. Since Benjamin is covered again in this chapter, and since Dan’s name is omitted altogether, some have suggested scribal errors resulting in a corrupted manuscript at this point.

Chapter 9 begins by summarizing the current situation in the chronicler’s time: “So all Israel was recorded by genealogies, and indeed, they were inscribed in the book of the kings of Israel. But Judah was carried away captive to Babylon because of their unfaithfulness. And the first inhabitants [to resettle after captivity] who dwelt in their possessions in their cities were Israelites, priests, Levites, and the Nethinim [temple servants]” (verses 1–2).

The final introductory section covers chapter 9:3–34, beginning with a reminder of those resettled in the capital at the return: “Now in Jerusalem the children of Judah dwelt, and some of the children of Benjamin, and of the children of Ephraim and Manasseh” (verse 3). Here Judah and Jerusalem are the center for the renewal of the children of Israel in the land to which they have returned. The emphasis in Chronicles is on all of Israel being represented in the newly restored order.

Focus on David and Solomon

In the second section of the book (1 Chronicles 10 to 2 Chronicles 9) we have the history of Israel under David and Solomon.

Chapter 10 begins the section that deals with David’s role in detail. With the failure and death of the Benjamite king, Saul, David is anointed to replace him. A feature of the chronicler’s accounts is that he presents God as punishing for sin and rewarding for faithfulness: “So Saul died for his unfaithfulness which he had committed against the Lord, because he did not keep the word of the Lord, and also because he consulted a medium for guidance. But he did not inquire of the Lord; therefore He killed him, and turned the kingdom over to David the son of Jesse” (verses 13–14).

The writer . . . wants his readers, and us, to understand the blessings which flow from faithful obedience to the Lord.”

Roddy Braun, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 14: 1 Chronicles

Samuel’s account of the rule of Saul’s son Ishbosheth over some of the tribes while David ruled Judah from Hebron (2 Samuel 2–4) is not mentioned by the chronicler. The two records come together, with minor variations, in the account of David’s acceptance by all the tribes: “Then all Israel came together to David at Hebron, saying, ‘Indeed we are your bone and your flesh. . . .’ Therefore all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord. And they anointed David king over Israel, according to the word of the Lord by Samuel” (1 Chronicles 11:1–3; compare 2 Samuel 5:1–3).

Unique to Chronicles is an emphasis on the term “all Israel.” Though it appears in many instances when quoting biblical sources, it also appears 20 times in passages with no equivalent in the source texts. In the context of David and Solomon, “all Israel” signals that these founders ruled all 12 tribes and should therefore be an example of unity for the returnees from Babylon. For example: “David gathered all Israel together, from Shihor in Egypt to as far as the entrance of Hamath [the largest extent of the land], to bring the ark of God from Kirjath Jearim”; “Then Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord as king instead of David his father, and prospered; and all Israel obeyed him. . . . So the Lord exalted Solomon exceedingly in the sight of all Israel, and bestowed on him such royal majesty as had not been on any king before him in Israel. Thus David the son of Jesse reigned over all Israel” (1 Chronicles 13:5; 29:23, 25–26).

King David Presenting the Scepter to Solomon

King David Presenting the Scepter to Solomon by Cornelis de Vos, oil on canvas (early 17th century).

Not included in Chronicles are some of David’s and Solomon’s more egregious sins, such as David’s adultery with Bathsheba and his role in the premeditated death of Uriah (compare 2 Samuel 11 with 1 Chronicles 20). The reason for this is presumably to shield the chronicler’s audience from David’s poor example and to keep them focused on his achievements. Similarly, David’s weakness over the rape of Tamar and the rebellion of Absalom (2 Samuel 13, 15–19) goes unrecorded.

Neither is there any mention of the problems Solomon brought on himself toward the end of his life. The book of Kings catalogues his departures from God’s ways: “King Solomon loved many foreign women, as well as the daughter of Pharaoh: women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians, and Hittites—from the nations of whom the Lord had said to the children of Israel, ‘You shall not intermarry with them, nor they with you. Surely they will turn away your hearts after their gods.’ Solomon clung to these in love. And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart. For it was so, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father David” (1 Kings 11:1–4). Chronicles says nothing about this. Again, we see that the chronicler maintains David and Solomon as ideal kings.

“All Israel”

In the third section of Chronicles (2 Chronicles 10–36), dealing with the breakup of the kingdom into northern and southern parts, the emphasis is on Judah’s kingdom and the positive impact of her righteous kings, and on the fact that the southern kingdom, under Rehoboam, represents “all Israel.” Whereas 1 Kings 12:23 says, “Speak to Rehoboam the son of Solomon, king of Judah, to all the house of Judah and Benjamin, and to the rest of the people,” the writer of Chronicles says, “Speak to Rehoboam the son of Solomon, king of Judah, and to all Israel in Judah and Benjamin” (2 Chronicles 11:3, emphasis added).

The chronicler reminds his audience that members of the other tribes, including the key religious leadership, were strongly represented in the southern kingdom: “From all their territories the priests and the Levites who were in all Israel took their stand with him [Rehoboam]. . . . And after the Levites left, those from all the tribes of Israel, such as set their heart to seek the Lord God of Israel, came to Jerusalem to sacrifice to the Lord God of their fathers. So they strengthened the kingdom of Judah, and made Rehoboam the son of Solomon strong for three years, because they walked in the way of David and Solomon for three years” (verses 13, 16–17). The book of Kings omits these details.

Similarly, the Judean king Asa brought several tribes together: “Then he gathered all Judah and Benjamin, and those who dwelt with them from Ephraim, Manasseh, and Simeon, for they came over to him in great numbers from Israel when they saw that the Lord his God was with him” (15:9). Again, there is no parallel passage in Kings.

During the later reign of Hezekiah, the chronicler tells us that there was much contact among the tribes: “Hezekiah sent to all Israel and Judah, and also wrote letters to Ephraim and Manasseh, that they should come to the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, to keep the Passover to the Lord God of Israel. . . . So they resolved to make a proclamation throughout all Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, that they should come to keep the Passover to the Lord God of Israel at Jerusalem, since they had not done it for a long time in the prescribed manner” (30:1, 5).

Following the Chronicler’s portrayal of the restoration of Israel’s unity under Hezekiah, he is anxious to emphasise that the later community was representative of all Israel, not just the former southern kingdom alone.”

H.G.M. Williamson, The New Century Bible Commentary: 1 and 2 Chronicles

We also find such references in the account of Judah’s final righteous king, Josiah, who rid the land of idolatry. He “cleansed Judah and Jerusalem. And so he did in the cities of Manasseh, Ephraim, and Simeon, as far as Naphtali and all around, with axes. When he had broken down the altars and the wooden images, had beaten the carved images into powder, and cut down all the incense altars throughout all the land of Israel, he returned to Jerusalem” (34:5–7).

Writing With Purpose

So why write what seems like a second history?

The chronicler’s message was intended to awaken his people to their identity. To do so, he emphasized aspects of their heritage. His summary history centered on the God of the Hebrew Scriptures being the one true God. It emphasized His choosing Israel, their tribal affiliations, the righteous among its kingly line, their unity as a people, the blessings for prayerful obedience, and the organization of their worship. Part of awakening them was to show that they represented all of Israel, given a new start; hence the stress laid on all the tribes under Judah’s leadership, as in the days of David and Solomon and reflected in the acts of other righteous kings of Judah, such as Asa, Hezekiah and Josiah.

Writing to descendants of those who had returned to restore the temple and the land of Israel and to follow the God of Israel, yet who at times had grown lukewarm, the chronicler was filled with zeal for stirring up his people. The postexilic prophets (Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi) had spoken over a period of almost a century, beginning in 520, pointing out the weakness of the returnees’ response to restoration. By the time Malachi gave God’s warnings, around 430, the temple had been rebuilt; but the priesthood was corrupted, the people once again adrift from God.

As evidence that this is a considerably later work than Samuel and Kings, the chronicler mentions several generations of descendants of the king Jehoiachin, whom Nebuchadnezzar exiled in Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem. The chronicler also includes descriptions of a well-developed temple system beyond that of Ezra and Nehemiah’s time—with 24 priestly courses, Levites, singers and gatekeepers—as well as extensive references to ceremony. In addition, he wrote in Late Biblical Hebrew, whereas most of his obvious sources were composed in earlier Hebrew. Taken together, this dates his work to around 350 BCE, making it one of the last books of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Chronicles ends with a reminder of the opportunity they had been given in their new beginning some 200 years earlier: “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah. Who is among you of all His people? May the Lord his God be with him, and let him go up!” (2 Chronicles 36:23).

Next time, we’ll go back to examine the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in what is traditionally thought of as the work of the prophet Jeremiah: the book of Lamentations.